09 July 2010

The Big Adventure - Part 9

And so to the highlight of our trip: the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. After breakfast we left our luggage at the hotel and set off towards the dunes, which where visible in the distance from our hotel, looking for a place away from the various hotels in the area. Distance can be deceptive, and the dunes were a few miles away but it was pleasant ride across the gravelly nothingness.

It's easy to understand why people go to see the dunes because they're just what many people think the desert is like – golden, shifting sands like in the Fry's Turkish Delight TV advert.

Photo by Gareth Jones

Taking 200Kg of bike, even unladen, in to soft sand isn't for the faint-hearted and it wasn't long before the sand claimed its first victim of many. We were a bit surprised when a young lad appeared and began setting out a display of fossils and the like in the apparent hope that we might buy something from him – the entrepreneurial approach was at least optimistic, but we didn't really have any interest in them and didn't buy anything. But to be fair, we didn't get any hassle from him either.

Gareth was determined to get further in to the dunes, and between us we managed to get his bike over the first dune and in to the valley beyond.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

Mark H and I got stuck a few more times, Jason had a play and Mark L stayed on solid ground.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

Before too long the appeal of the dunes started to fade, and the realisation that perhaps the big Adventures weren't the ideal tool for the job. So we set off back to the hotel with the intention of doing as little as possible, but not before Gareth had decided to walk to the highest dune we could see, and investigate a camel on the way.

The hotel didn't serve lunch, so we set-to with our camping stoves and used some of our own supplies on the patio behind our room. We also took the opportunity to do some laundry, the various luggage straps making an impromptu washing line.

It was a very humid day, much like a British summer day but a lot hotter, so we retired to the pool for a swim, and for some quality lazy time: reading, dozing and listening to iPods. The water in the pool was cold, but once you were in it was very refreshing. I'm not a keen swimmer, but even I did a good few lengths. We'd watched the hotel staff cleaning the pool that morning, and the long grass behind it being cut by a group of ladies, by hand. It looked like they were taking the grass away with them, although what they would do with it we don't know. There were being provided with the traditional silver pot of tea though.

That evening we again gathered for pre-dinner drinks before taking our place in the open-air dining room. The wind had got up, it was a warm wind and thankfully it got rid of the worst of the flies. For most of the trip we didn't have any real problem with flies, mosquitoes etc., but for some reason there were dozens of them around the hotel. In our room we had the air conditioning on and this seemed to put them off, but they were everywhere when we were out and about.

On the menu that night was a dish of chicken and potatoes, and it was obviously the chef's night off because it was the poor relation of the previous night's delicious tagine. Even the desserts were sub-standard with the cheeseboard being particularly meagre after the generous portions of the night before – or perhaps they knew they didn't need to impress us because we were leaving anyway?

In many ways this was the end of our tour – we were turning for home, we were retracing our steps and nothing would be particularly “new” any more. With a slightly gloomy air we turned in for the night.

Next morning we loaded up the bikes and set off towards the Todra Gorge, which runs pretty much parallel to the Dades Gorge. Leaving the hotel I was at the back of the ride and spotted a mini tornado not far from the road. If you look closely you can see the column of dust:

We were riding up the N13, which runs most of the way down Morocco from north to south, traffic was light and the surface was pretty good. Turning off the N13 to head west we again were crossing a lot of nothing, but there were a variety of lay-bys and other places for tourists to stop to have a closer look.

Spotting a handy group (herd?) of camels we set off on foot to take photos (the novelty of camels never did wear off).

Looking back towards the bikes, despite being parked on a well surfaced road they looked a bit lost in all the open space:

The Todra Gorge is closer to civilisation and consequently was even busier than the Dades had been. Lots of tourists, touts, stalls selling souvenirs, 4x4s and the like. The road was in the process of being rebuilt having been washed away, and there's film footage on YouTube (see below) that shows an intrepid biker riding through the flowing water in 2009. It was nicely shaded though, and a pleasant enough place to have a break.

We'd been given details of a campsite further up the gorge, and the plan was to camp there overnight. Unfortunately, as usual, we couldn't find the actual place so we improvised. On the way up the gorge we'd stopped by somewhere that might or might not have been the campsite, and were immediately besieged by kids wanting sweets, Dirham etc., and wanting us to stay there. Their clamouring was so persistent that none of us felt inclined to stick around any longer than necessary.

We carried on up the gorge, looking for somewhere suitable to pitch our tents. This isn’t an easy task in such a rocky area, but at last we spotted a suitable site on the side of a dried-up river bed. It was still quite visible from the road, but from there we could see a more secluded spot a little further up the riverbed that was out of site of the road. The ground was soft and reasonably flat, so we decided to stay.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

With the tents up and the stoves on the go heating water we were pretty comfortable; and it was a lot cooler than it had been in the desert! As I’ve said before, you’re never alone in Morocco, and it wasn’t long before we had a visit from a young shepherd. He stood and looked at us for a few minutes, then disappeared again.

Dinner was prepared from our long-life, boil-in-the-bag meals (beef stew with dumplings for me), and we enjoyed the last of the evening sun by exploring further up the river before watching another beautiful sunset.

Next morning we were woken by the sound of cowbells and the bleating of sheep as the shepherd from the previous evening drove his flock straight through the camp. It was a bit of a rude awakening, but no harm done.

Photo by Gareth Jones

After breakfast we packed up and returned to the road. The road up from the Todra Gorge had been recently surfaced, was deserted and had some spectacular views.

I can also offer a ‘tip-of-the-day’ at this point: make sure your pannier lid is closed before riding away – especially if it’s the one with all your paperwork in it. Fortunately nothing fell out, but I did feel a bit of an idiot!

The road wound up in to the mountains, and on one corner with a particularly impressive view we encountered a pair of British riders who were heading south on smaller trail bikes: one on a Honda the other a Suzuki. We chatted with them for a while, exchanging trail-notes before setting off in opposite directions, their adventure still to come.

We’d decided that rather than extend our journey home for the sake of it, we’d get on and head back to Spain a couple of days early to allow some rest and relaxation before flying home (ash cloud not withstanding). Our destination was Midelt, and the same hotel we’d stayed at on the way out, and where Gareth and I caught up with the others two week previous.

Our route took us back to Imilchil, and through the town of El Rich [El Reesh]. The roads through the mountain wound along the valleys with flowing bends that were great to ride, with the odd village and junction to break it up.

On the edge of Imilchil there was a small group of children waiting at a road junction. They did the usual scrounging for sweets, Dirham etc. from us, but by this stage we didn’t have much left. I was at the back of the ride, and one young chap got a little too close and was caught by my pannier as I pulled away. I only know this because in the mirror I saw someone doubled over at the side of the road, put two-and-two together and assume it was the chap who been tapping me on the leg while I’d been stopped. Perhaps he’ll stand a bit further back from bikes next time…

Lunch was due to be in El Rich, but after being mobbed at the petrol station on the outskirts (to the point where the staff at the filling station were chasing the kids away), and not seeing anywhere all that appealing in the town itself we decided to press on.

Instead we stopped on the edge of Midelt and watched a chap on a locally registered Yamaha R1 ride backwards and forwards. Posing bikers on sports-bikes are the same the world over – except for the lack of race rep. leathers, which would be far too hot.

In the centre of Midelt they were rebuilding a bridge across the river, so there was a diversionary route signposted – although Mark L who was leading had other ideas and we plunged in to a maze of narrow residential streets. Encountering a a small square with several roads leading in different directions, and with no sign of Mark ahead, we could only guess which way he’d gone, and fortunately we got it right. Quite what the residents must have made of us, I don’t know!

Arriving at the bridge, the only option was to ride across the parallel footbridge, which was wide enough (just) for a fully laden Adventure. We were split up by oncoming pedestrians, and someone on a moped who’d had the same idea as us, so when we got to the other side (cue joke about why did the biker cross the bridge…!) the advance party was nowhere to be seen. Recognising where we were from the outward journey, close to the start of the Cirque du Jaffar, we set off in hot pursuit and caught them up.

Arriving in the familiar courtyard of Kazar Timney, we were soon making ourselves comfortable in the same rooms we’d had before. But there was a surprise in store: after the disruption of the dust cloud and talk of riding back to the UK, Mark H decided that was what he was going to do – ride up through Spain and France, and get the ferry back to the UK. The last we saw of him was the back of his bike disappearing in a cloud of dust, in a northerly direction.

Dinner that night was our last tagine of the trip, chicken and lemon, and a few drinks. It was much warmer than it had been on our previous visit, and we were grateful for the air conditioning in the room. We also played with the satellite TV in the room, but could only find what might be euphemistically termed adult channels – which was certainly a surprise in a Muslim country (or perhaps it was to cater for the western audience?).

In the other room, the electrics were keeping us entertained where one switch turned on the light, another made it flicker, and a third reversed the whole lot while turning on the bathroom light. I suppose that Joseph Lucas, AKA The Prince of Darkness, needed to do something after he retired from the automotive industry.

Outside I got talking a Danish couple who were staying in their caravan. Their two sons race KTM bikes in Denmark, and he was interested in our big KTMs, where we’d taken them and how we’d got on with them.

Tomorrow’s plan was to get to the hotel in Chefchaouen that they’d stayed in while Gareth and I were stuck in Spain. The route took us through Meknes, and it was absolute chaos. Roadworks were in progress on the main four-lane road through it, so the traffic just crossed the central reservation and used both sides of the road. Police officers were blowing whistles and waving their arms, and nobody was taking any notice. With the traffic being as heavy as it was, filtering wasn’t an option but eventually we made it though almost unscathed: somehow Gareth managed to collide with a wheelbarrow, adding some fresh dents to his pannier and getting a very dark look from the workers.

We also decided it was time to do some souvenir shopping, so we made a couple of stops to look at various pretty stones, fossils, tagines and other trinkets. Mark L and Gareth decided to take home a tagine (dish) each, which lead to the challenge of fitting them securely on to their bikes:

"Is that a tagine in your pocket, or shall we do a very old joke?"

I opted for miniature versions that had been carved out of stone, and a small ceramic one that might be just about big enough to do a couple of olives in. We rode past the Danish couple on one of the steeper hills, and they stopped for another brief chat when we’d pulled in to look at some stalls in a lay-by.

At one point we had to pull over when Gareth got stung by a wasp, and a group of children came over to see us and scrounge sweets etc. They also found the throttle on my bike, and I was able to divert their attention from begging to revving. Another motorist, heading in the opposite direction, stopped to remonstrate with them – I don’t know if it was because they were “pestering” us, or whether he knew them or something else, but the kids ran off as soon as he got out of his car.

Arriving at the hotel on the edge of Chefchaouen, it was busy with people watching a football match on a large TV in the non-alcoholic “bar”. It was the most formal hotel we’d stayed in, with passports required at check-in, and the rooms were small but comfortable (although the light in the shower didn’t work in the room Jason and I shared). We sat down with a drink (coffee or Cola) and watched the game, and apart from the absence of alcohol we could have been in a sports bar almost anywhere.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

Unfortunately that's where the good bits ended. The hotel didn’t serve food, either an evening meal or breakfast, there was one gents toilet for all the rooms, and it was broken, a pack of dogs across the road from hotel were barking all night and kept us awake all night – so none of us were at our best the following morning for the last push to the border at Sebta.

It felt a very long way, but it was only a couple of hours to the border and we arrived about 10.00 to begin the process of leaving Morocco and exporting our bikes. Thanks to a text message from Mark H the previous evening, we knew pretty much what we had to do, and we took it in turns to go to the window to get our exit stamps and to hand in another section of our D16 vehicle forms. We’d also intended to change our remaining Dirham in to Euro, but as it was a Sunday the exchange offices appeared to be closed.

In the confusion of vehicles and people, the other three managed to get ahead, and by the time I got back to my bike to go to the frontier proper, they were already en route to Spain. Crossing back in the EU was just like any other EU crossing when you’re an EU resident – they didn’t even glance at our passports and just waved us straight through.

Owing to the time difference, it was now Noon, and Gareth and I needed to get ferry tickets for the same company at Jason and Mark L. There are plenty of shops offering tickets for all three companies, and we found one just near the port and duly bought tickets for the next Baleària crossing at 14.15. Mark L, forgetting the time difference, wondered what we could do in Ceuta for four hours, when it was only going to be two – and with check-in time it was really only an hour and a half!

Having not eaten since lunch the previous day, we spotted a drive-through McDonalds and decided that was probably the simplest option. Great in theory, but although it had a drive-through it didn’t have a car park… We eventually found a spot to park (well, it was more abandon than park) by the aquarium just a short walk away, and we duly tucked in to Spanish chicken burgers, chips and Coke while watch the world, and the incoming Malaga to Ceuta helicopter, pass by.

Despite it being a domestic ferry to Algeciras, security was pretty tight at the port, with passport checks and a sniffer dog watching the passing traffic. The security is almost certainly to prevent illegal immigrants who’ve managed to sneak in to the Spanish enclave from getting an easy passage to Europe.

The boat was a much more modern then the one Gareth and I had been on when going the other way, and was a mono-hull fast ferry instead of a catamaran. Taking the travelator up from the car deck I headed for the lounge with leather seats and a sea view – but the others had a different idea and headed to the café.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

When we arrived in Algeciras we’d made a rough plan to find a camp-site for the next two nights before our flight home (we’d still no idea whether it was cancelled or not). Our destination was Ronda, which I thought was in Wales but isn’t (well there’s a Rhonda in Wales), and we set off from the port on to the Autovia. Through a combination of heavy traffic and reduced speed limits we got split up, only to see the other three disappear down a slip-road as I was in the middle lane… Bother.

Still, we got back on track and took the road up in to the mountains. I can see why the area is popular with bikers for the roads were very twisty, generally well surfaced, and fairly quiet. We found a camp site on the edge of Ronda that seemed very upmarket, with a swimming pool, lots of grassy pitches and lots of rules – including no groups! Undeterred, we went in to reception and they were happy to show us the various options. They had a number of self-catering chalets available, with twin-beds and en-suite facilities for the reasonable sum of 60€ per chalet – so we took two. I was very relieved that we wouldn’t be in a tent again and looked forward to a good sleep.

The café was very busy with people enjoying the last of their weekend, and we joined them drinking a cold beer or two in the evening sun. There was also food available, and by this time we couldn’t really be bothered to go anywhere else, so we tucked in to a reasonably tasty, if slightly pricey, meal.

With nothing planned for the next day, I decided to head back over to Redtread Honda in Cómpeta to say hello, thank them for their help and let them know how we’d got on. It’s easy to forget relative distances, and it was a little over two hours later that I arrived in Cómpeta but not before having a slightly unnerving moment when I spotted the Police speed-check just as I was passing a slow moving van. I was definitely over the speed limit, but the officers just waved me on my way – phew!

That evening was pretty much a repeat of Sunday evening, with more beers on the terrace, and a not-quite-as-good but still-a-bit-pricey meal at the café.

Our last day dawned, and we had one last ride from Ronda to La Viñuela where Transport Tony was going to meet us to load the bikes for the return journey. It turned out that the route was almost identical to the route I’d taken to Cómpeta the previous day – except that the lure of Morocco was such that Mark L, who was leading, set off west along the Autovía del Mediterráneo back towards Algeciras instead of east towards Tony and home!

The views from Tony’s house were amazing, and after sorting out and loading our bikes and luggage, Hazel, Tony’s wife, very kindly fed and watered us while we enjoyed the view over the mountains and lake.

Eventually it was time to make for the airport, and Tony kindly gave us a lift. Mark, Gareth and I were off to Gatwick and Jason to Manchester. Malaga airport has had a lot of work done to it since my last visit, and while it’s still in progress there’s a lot of walking back and forwards between check-in in Terminal 2, the new security search area everyone has to use in Terminal 3 and the easyJet boarding gate back in Terminal 2 – at the far end of it.

Knowing how to play the easyJet game, we stationed ourselves at the front of the boarding queue and were the first non-priority passengers on the aircraft, an Airbus A320, and sat as close to the front as we could get. After a peaceful flight back to Gatwick we were almost first off the aircraft, straight through passport control and baggage reclaim (we’d only taken hand luggage), and after some brief good-byes I met Andrew and Gayle outside who’d very kindly offered to pick me up and drive me home.

So that was it: Our Moroccan adventure was over and we were back in the real world with some fantastic memories.

…where can we go next?

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